Category Archives: SFF

Review: Defy by Sarah B. Larson

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DefyDefy by Sara B. Larson (2014, Scholastic Press)

Blurb: Alexa Hollen is a fighter. Forced to disguise herself as a boy and serve in the king’s army, Alex uses her quick wit and fierce sword-fighting skills to earn a spot on the elite prince’s guard. But when a powerful sorcerer sneaks into the palace in the dead of night, even Alex, who is virtually unbeatable, can’t prevent him from abducting her, her fellow guard and friend Rylan, and Prince Damian, taking them through the treacherous wilds of the jungle and deep into enemy territory.

The longer Alex is held captive with both Rylan and the prince, the more she realizes that she is not the only one who has been keeping dangerous secrets. And suddenly, after her own secret is revealed, Alex finds herself confronted with two men vying for her heart: the safe and steady Rylan, who has always cared for her, and the dark, intriguing Damian. With hidden foes lurking around every corner, is Alex strong enough to save herself and the kingdom she’s sworn to protect?

After reading the above description, I was really excited to read this book. I expected a strong female character, an action-packed fantasy novel, and a lot of in-depth character interaction. Sadly, that is not what this book is. If you want a strong female character who is decisive and self-confident and a leader, this is not the book for you. Alexa is defined, both by others and by herself, solely in terms of her relationships to other (male) characters: she is Marcel’s twin; one of Damian’s elite guard; Rylan’s friend. This evolves or devolves (depending on how you choose to look at it) into Alexa as the love interest of both Damian and Rylan, and as the pawn of the Men with the Plan. At no time does Alexa come up with a plan of her own—virtually all of her actions are the results of orders given to her by men. The only reason Alexa lives to the end of the book is that men perform heroic actions, they protect her, save her life, and tell her what to do to stay alive. That’s not really my idea of a strong female action character.

The world-building in Defy is minimal; it’s a romance novel with swords and magic and a generic fantasy setting, not a fantasy novel with a romance. I didn’t actually mind that so much because so many books go overboard with world-building. What I did mind were the places where the world-building slipped, for example, when one character tells another that “pride goeth before a fall.” I couldn’t quite work out how a character in a fantasy setting with no real mention of religion was able to quote the Bible.

The focus on the romance rather than on a plot is also responsible for the wildly uneven pacing of the book. The plot-based scenes do have a fair amount of action in them, but the minute the action stops, all Alexa does is moon over the dudes. Seriously! If she’s not actively fighting, during her weeks-long journey through the jungle, while being held captive, the most efficient, skilled soldier in the king’s army thinks not about survival or escape tactics, but is instead unable to produce a single coherent thought that does not involve her attraction to Rylan and/or Damian.

The author uses the gender-swap device solely as a means of getting Alexa close enough to Damian and Rylan that she can fall in love with them. There’s no exploration of gender roles in society—theirs or ours. The same-sex aspect of the love triangle, which I was looking forward to, was completely sidestepped. I would have wondered if the issue of same-sex attraction was deemed inappropriate for the target YA audience were it not for the vivid descriptions of the breeding houses—oh, didn’t I mention that? All captured children are separated by sex: boys train to be soldiers, girls are forced to bear children who will then be subjected to the same fate. Although this is disturbing enough just on the face of it, what’s even more disturbing is that their inclusion seems to be more to evoke in the reader a reaction against the current regime than to serve any real function within the story. The characters themselves just accept the breeding houses as the way things are rather than as, you know, a reason to actively oppose a vile regime instead of being part of the elite guard ensuring the regime’s survival.

All in all, this book was a huge disappointment. Between the lack of a plot, the lack of any real character or relationship development, and a fair bit of what seemed to me to be anti-feminist content (I won’t go so far as to call it misogynistic, but others have), based on this book I’m going to give the rest of the series a pass.

This ARC was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

My rating: 2 stars out of 5.

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Review: Parasite by Mira Grant

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ParasiteParasite by Mira Grant (Orbit, 2013), Parasitology series

 

Sally Mitchell is in a coma. The victim of a horrific car accident, Sally is considered by her doctors to be brain-dead, and literally moments before her family turns off the machines keeping her alive, she awakens. Only she isn’t Sally anymore, she’s Sal, and she remembers nothing of her life before the moment she awakened. She has to learn how to speak, how to walk; she has to establish new relationships with her family members, who struggle to accept her new personality, which is completely different from the Sally they all knew. What they don’t struggle to accept is her miraculous recovery—her genetically engineered symbiotic implant, developed by the SymboGen Corporation, has done its job: while she was unconscious, it repaired all of her injuries, leaving her almost completely healed.

In fact, these implants—which are bioengineered tapeworms—are so effective at healing disease and boosting the human immune system that almost everybody has one. No more tablets, no more injections: these implants are truly a modern miracle. But if that’s the case, what is the mysterious sleeping sickness that is starting to spread across the city? Seemingly healthy people are fine one minute, and the next they’re almost in a fugue state: they can’t speak, they can’t really communicate, they don’t seem to move with any purpose, they’re really kind of like zombies. And from what Sal sees during one of her regular visits to SymboGen (one of the hazards of awakening from a coma is you become medically fascinating and are routinely subjected to all kinds of medical and psychological tests), there seems to be some kind of tie to the implants.

And possibly even to Sal herself.

Parasite is compulsively readable. It’s engaging, it’s witty, it’s creepy (the children’s story that is featured throughout is fantastic and really helps to set the tone), but it also gives away too much too soon, so the plot “reveals” fell a little flat. Even so, Grant does such a good job of pacing that the suspense builds up to the very last page—which is a little frustrating because this is the first book in a planned trilogy, meaning I have to wait to find out what happens next.

 

This book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

My rating: 4 stars

Review: BZRK Reloaded by Michael Grant (BZRK #2)

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BZRK ReloadedBZRK Reloaded by Michael Grant (Egmont USA, 2013): BZRK series

 

The first book in the series, BZRK, was a true thrill ride: nanobots, biotech, mass murder, espionage (both political and industrial), good vs. evil, and a hit of romance. The book ended with the failure of the BZRK mission: to stop the Armstrong brothers, Charles and Benjamin, conjoined twins who want to make the world a perfect place through technological enslavement.

BZRK Reloaded is even better.

The book picks up where the previous book left off. Having failed in their mission, the BZRK group is left to pick up the pieces. The president is under the secret control of the Armstrong brothers—maybe—who are using government resources to track down what remains of BZRK. Olivia has suffered horrific injuries; Vincent, having lost one of his biots during the battle, teeters on the brink of insanity; Nijinsky has become the reluctant leader; and Plath and Keats have realized the true stakes of the battle. In fact, part of what makes BZRK Reloaded better than the first book is the transition of BZRK from a group of loosely affiliated gamers who enjoy the action at the nanolevel to a group of individuals with a personal grudge against the Armstrong brothers. Yes, they oppose the utopia the Armstrong Fancy Gifts Corporation would impose upon everyone, but more than that, they have a score to settle with Charles, Benjamin, Burnofsky, and Bug Man. And Anonymous makes a guest appearance as a minor annoyance that turns out to be not so minor.

The characters develop nicely in this second book in a planned trilogy. The book is still full of action, but as with the Gone series, the shifting alliances and perfectly timed conversations reveal motives and secrets of each character without becoming mired in introspection. Grant uses these devices to explore philosophical issues (What makes a good leader? Can battles or wars ever really be cast in terms of black and white, good and evil? Can a person employ tactics he despises for what he believes are the right reasons, and still be a good person? Where and how is that line crossed?) in a way that preserves the book’s rapid pace.

The battle scenes are not as frequent as in BZRK but are no less fascinating; microscopic nanotech making its way around the human body makes for great description, and the in-depth view of what goes into “wiring” the brain—and how the brain reacts—is as compelling as it is cringe-inducing.

This is clearly a second book; while it stands alone, it does so within the context of the series and would be utterly confusing to anyone who didn’t read the first book. It’s setting up the final battle in the third book, BZRK Revolution, so while the ending is a resolution of sorts, I’m left anticipating what is to follow. I’ve got questions, and I’m looking forward to the next book so I can get some answers.

This book was provided by the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.

My rating: 4 stars

 

Review: The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon

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TheBoneSeasonThe Bone Season by Samantha Shannon (Bloomsbury, 2013)

One of the great joys of being a reader is finding a book that incorporates familiar elements in a way that is completely original. The Bone Season is such a book.

Paige Mahoney lives in 2059 Scion London, where “voyants”—people with special mental abilities—are hunted down. Some are imprisoned, some are executed, and some are forced to join the security forces and use their powers to capture other voyants. Paige is part of an underworld group called the syndicate, which is kind of like a mafia protection racket: the voyants go to work for the syndicate, and the syndicate looks out for the voyants. Paige is the group’s “mollisher,” the second in command; and although she recognizes her powers are somewhat unusual, she doesn’t fully understand what they are and what their limits might be. One day, riding home on a subway, she has a run-in with the Scion security forces that changes her life forever: she’s captured and sent to a penal colony run by the Rephaim—an alien race who control the Scion—where voyants are the soldiers in the Rephaim war against their own enemies.

If this sounds complicated, that’s because it is. But Shannon has an incredibly deft hand at world-building: the descriptions of London and Sheol I, the prison, are richly layered and full of details. And it’s not just the places. The societies are also fully realized—the human world, where ESP is viewed as a potentially curable illness and people volunteer for “treatment”; the voyant underworld and the syndicate; and then the world of Sheol I—each with its own set of rules and hierarchies. All this information is presented in a way that is effortless for the reader. There’s no slogging through background information or paging through excessive description, and as a reader I never got the sense that I was being given more information or detail than I needed.

Paige is an engaging and incredibly frustrating character. She’s smart, she’s passionate, and she’s intensely loyal, which means that she makes a lot of decisions that an outsider can instantly identify as bad ones, but that Paige is going to make every time because that’s who she is. Paige is also endlessly curious, and at Sheol I she’s got a lot to explore: the prison itself; the Rephaim; her own powers, which she is beginning to realize are even more unusual and special than she ever imagined; and her relationships within the prison. Her master is a Rephaim called Warden, who manages to be simultaneously cruel and sympathetic. The relationship between Paige and Warden is very well drawn; Paige, so slow to trust but so incredibly loyal, doesn’t know what to do with this Rephaim whose motives are so unclear—is he trying to help her or destroy her?

To sum up: I loved this book. It’s richly layered, complex, and compelling. I plan on re-reading it when the sequel is published because I know there’s more under the surface that I’ve missed.

The Bone Season is the first book in a planned series of seven by debut author Samantha Shannon.  Apparently Andy Serkis has already optioned the film rights; if so, I hope this book makes it to the screen, because it has the potential to be amazing in a visual medium.

 

This book was provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

My rating: 5 stars

Review: The Age of Ice by J.M. Sidorova

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TheAgeofIceThe Age of Ice by J. M. Sidorova (Scribner, 2013)

 

Blurb: An epic debut novel about a lovelorn eighteenth-century Russian noble, cursed with longevity and an immunity to cold, whose quest for the truth behind his condition spans two thrilling centuries and a stunning array of historical events.

 

In 1740, the Russian empress issues a cruel and unusual order: two court jesters (one of them actually an out-of-favor nobleman) are locked into a palace made of ice, where they are wed and left to consummate their marriage. Out of this union come twins: the princes Andrei and Alexander Velitsyn.

Andrei lives a relatively normal, if short, life, but Alexander’s life is long and remarkable. He explores the Siberian wilderness in search of the Northeast Passage; he fights—so many fights, from the Cossack rebellion to the Napoleonic Wars; he is caught up in the Great Game and both World Wars; he mingles with artists and writers as varied as Mary Shelley and Anna Akhmatova. He makes and loses fortunes. He loves, in his way, yet throughout the novel he holds himself aloof and distant from those around him because he has a secret: he is impervious to cold. More than that, he is cold. Strong emotion—and physical arousal—manifest as the chilling of his body: snow and ice will not melt in his hands.

Alexander is a character who doesn’t really arouse sympathy so much as fascination. His is not a straightforward journey. He’s driven by a need to discover why he is what he is, and if there is another like him. The physical distance that is forced upon Alexander by his unique physiology is mirrored in the way he’s presented: there is a distance to the first-person narration, and Alexander, while longing to be connected to someone either physically or emotionally, is unable to articulate that need or his reasons for avoiding such connections. But while the chilling effect of feeling distant from the main character can sometimes take away from a novel, in this case it adds depth to it. It allows the reader some insight into Alexander: he’s not just living under a thin coating of ice, he spends much of the book encased in ice armor.

This is not a book where events happen quickly. It is a sprawling epic, and some knowledge of Russian history and/or literature is extremely helpful to provide signposts along the way (the timeline of events at the back of the book is also quite useful for keeping track). The writing is excellent, in particular the descriptions of the cold and the ice; the book is like a Russian winter, slow to start but intense and lingering. It is the slow burn of ice, that bone-deep chill. Although I’ve seen this described as a fantasy novel, I didn’t really see it that way. It’s definitely historical fiction, but I would call this magical realism: richly layered, and while the settings feel real and authentic, Alexander’s long life, and his affliction, are clearly not of this world. Sidorova is an author to watch.

 

My rating: 4 stars

Review: The Light Ages by Ian R. MacLeod

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TheLightAgesThe Light Ages by Ian R. MacLeod (Open Road Media, 2013; originally published 2005)

 

Blurb: In a bleak and gritty England, in a fantastical Age of Industry, the wealth that comes from magic is both revered and reviled. Here, an ambitious young man is haunted by his childhood love–a woman determined to be a part of the world he despises.

 

The England in this novel is reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ England, only with a twist: aether, a magical substance that transformed English society. Aether is almost like a magical glue in that it holds things together that would otherwise come apart, which is both good and bad when it is the major component of most of England’s infrastructure, as it short-circuits progress: why search for ways to improve things when you can just fix them with aether? Aether must be mined and used in combination with magic, which leads to a controlling elite of Guilds and Guildsmen, who control the economy and therefore the jobs, and an underclass of miners—who, after years of exposure, are sometimes slowly transformed into hideous creatures: Changelings, also called “trolls,” and are considered fit only for the asylum, where they are used for experimentation.

Robert Borrows is born in a town in Yorkshire that is the heart of aether mining country. It’s said that the residents’ hearts beat in time with the enormous aether engines that power the country. When he is still just a boy, Robert’s mother turns into a troll, which destroys his family. Rejecting a dreary future as a member of his father’s Guild, Robert runs away to London, where he’s able to live a life outside the Guilds, albeit one of poverty and petty crime. He soon becomes a political agitator, arguing that society is at a turning point: it’s time for revolution and a new society, one without the strict social strata imposed by the guilds.

But Robert has also seen the better things in life. Shortly before her death, his mother introduced him to Annalise, who is not quite human—a Changeling?—and whom he encounters on Midsummer’s Day in London. She now styles herself Anna Winters, a part of the upper class. Robert senses that their destinies are intertwined, but he’s not sure how—until he begins to suspect something, something that binds him to Anna, something involving their parents, and the day the aether engines stopped.

MacLeod’s writing is superb. The descriptions are lush, gorgeous, and give a real sense of time and place. His characters are likewise nuanced and multifaceted. But Robert is a very passive character, and slow to make connections; the book, already slow-moving, bogs down under the sheer weight of his passivity and introspection, and sometimes it’s difficult to keep track of the actual events of the story. Which is too bad, because the setting, the characters, and most of all the language are extraordinary, but the story itself doesn’t quite hold up.

 

This book was provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

My rating: 3 stars